The U.S. Social Security Number (SSN) is an unusual form of public record
because it is information that the government created by assigning a unique
number to each person. The majority of public records collect preexisting
One of the unintended consequences of the SSN is that, despite assurances
this would not happen, it has been widely adopted by both governments and the
public as a standard identifier. Well beyond administering the Social Security
program, the SSN is now used for all varieties of tax collection, credit
and banking transactions, federal government security, state-level recordkeeping,
passport issuance, and so on.
All of the recordkeeping uniformity created by adoption of the SSN has surely
made financial services and government benefits more easily available to people.
At the same time, however, it has eroded privacy by facilitating monitoring and
The SSN is also increasingly being used to commit a group of frauds known as
theft." In response, there have been calls to limit the
use of SSNs. Though often put forward as solutions to a privacy
problem, these proposals are, in fact, largely a matter of
crime control. And they would prevent law-abiding citizens
and businesses from exchanging true information about one
another for good purposes as well as bad.
As a public record, the SSN is a mixed bag. It has streamlined many transactions
in both the government- and private-sectors, yet it threatens privacy and is an
instrument of crime. These latter harms are unintended consequences — the hidden
costs — of the Social Security program, which catalogues and warehouses data on
nearly every living American.
Understanding Amy Boyer's Law: Social Security
Numbers, Crime Control, and Privacy, Privacilla.org (December, 2000) (PDF format; also
available in html format)